Flavor: American Food 101
Ambiance: Bustling diner, degreased and organic
Where: 1185 Charlotte Hwy. #B, Fairview
Hours: Wed-Fri, 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sat-Sun, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Food writing isn't exactly a science, but there are a few rules that seem to make the whole rigmarole work: Don't make a spectacle of yourself, ostentatiously recording every perceived service slight and kitchen misstep in a reporter's notebook. Don't refuse anything rumored to be edible. And don't ever crowd a column with assorted loved ones, since the printed page is like a fun-house mirror, immediately rendering anyone who crosses it less endearing, less cute and less clever.
I've rarely been tempted to veer off topic to introduce my dining mates, which is perhaps not so much a testament to my discipline as it is to my husband's near-total dislike of food. He puts eating in the same category as stubbed toes and dial-up Internet connections: An unpleasant inconvenience humans are forced to endure.
Obviously, I'm now breaking a rule I consider sacrosanct, but I think doing so is defensible. Because really, there's no better way to convey the utter charm of Sugar Beet Café than to tell you my husband insists we drive all the way to Fairview to eat there every single Sunday. He once ate there twice in one weekend -- no doubt ordering the bagel-and-lox plate both times.
I haven't asked him what he likes so much about Sugar Beet -- I don't want to jinx it -- but I imagine anyone would be smitten with the adorable little eatery's super-fresh plates of diner-inspired classics. Sugar Beet's menu is fairly modest, but its execution is stunning: It's the sort of restaurant that reminds you why Americans ever started eating so many eggs and sandwiches in the first place.
Co-owners Ashley Thelen and Colleah Habif have proudly "softened up" the restaurant's decor, which still retains distinct traces of its Huddle House heritage ("We wanted to utilize everything that was here and not strip everything out and replace it with bamboo because it's green," Habif explains). But don't mistake the cottage-style curtains for primness: There's a good bit of rule-breaking going on at Sugar Beet too.
"We opened in January, which you're not supposed to do," Habif says. "We opened during a recession, which you're not supposed to do. And we partnered with our friends, which you're not supposed to do."
"We just wanted to get our doors open," Thelen recalls of the restaurant's first wintry days. "We had nothing in our deli case. We thought it would be a slow opening, and it hasn't been, and we're thrilled."
At press time, Sugar Beet still didn't have a sign out front, and the owners hadn't spent a cent on advertising -- a strategy probably not endorsed by most manuals on how to run a restaurant. But customers clearly aren't waiting for fancy signage to beckon them inside: Sugar Beet is nearly always jammed.
"I feel like we're supporting the Fairview community," Habif says. "We're not tourist driven."
"Customers tell us all the time how glad they are to have a place to meet," Thelen adds.
For eaters without a political agenda, there are still plenty of good reasons to dine at Sugar Beet. Reasons like the signature eggs Benedict, which -- like many menu items -- entered the restaurant's repertoire as a daily special and wasn't allowed to leave. The Benedict is a dignified stack of sautéed spinach, two tomato slices, avocado, a dab of lemony hollandaise and expertly cooked eggs. The dish is a zillion times more eloquent than the phrase which appears on menus all over Asheville -- "we strive to use local and organic ingredients" -- in conveying the kitchen's commitment to freshness and quality. Even the English muffin on which the Benedict is built is surprisingly tasty.
Although the muffin is one of the few bread products at Sugar Beet not baked by City Bakery, Sugar Beet is obviously exacting in its sourcing. The edible accoutrements and add-ons that so many eateries sleepwalk through selecting are chosen with care at Sugar Beet: At how many other restaurants is it actually worth eating the pickle that comes with every sandwich?
"We try our best to focus on the details," Habif says. "We're just putting our love into everything."
That means the restaurant makes the bulk of its offerings from scratch, including its superlative salsa, fresh basil-rich pesto and coleslaw. So Sugar Beet's skinny French fries, obviously frozen, are a disappointment, albeit one readily relieved by the restaurant's savory hand-cut home fries.
"We had a huge debate about whether we'd hand cut our French fries," Habif sighs. Ultimately deciding the restaurant's small kitchen couldn't possibly handle the extraordinarily time-consuming task, Sugar Beet opted for what Habif calls the best fries they could find.
"They satisfied our craving," she says. "They're soft in the middle, crispy on the outside."
Habif said the kitchen plans to soon debut handmade sweet-potato fries, one of the less ambitious items on a growing list of future plans that includes dinner service, complete meals to go, takeout picnics, beer and wine, outdoor seating and gourmet salads by the pound.
"It's been just kind of bare bones, the four of us making it happen," says Thelen.
Thelen and Habif brought their partners into the mix soon after they conceptualized the restaurant, hoping to draw on their cooking and management expertise. "It was just Colleah and I, and then we roped everyone in," Thelen explains.
Not surprisingly, a familial air reigns at Sugar Beet, where Habif and Thelen have pledged to approach the enterprise "like sisters," and where the menu gently harkens back to the many restaurants Habif and her husband Ross have opened since they first launched a coffee shop in middle Tennessee rather than go on a honeymoon. Sugar Beet's breakfast offerings include a rather nostalgic almond French toast that's appeared at every Habif-run eatery. The Habifs first discovered the challah-based dish while traveling through Florida and have "an emotional connection" to it, Habif confessed.
The French toast -- a dense sponge shellacked with almond slivers -- seems best suited to diners confined to high chairs ("Little old ladies love it," Habif says), and is easily overshadowed by vegetable-packed omelets, pillowy pancakes and the knockout huevos rancheros featuring black beans, diced peppers and perfectly scrambled eggs cupped in a tostada shell.
"Free-range eggs are key," Habif confirms. "They just taste fresher."
Sugar Beet isn't shy about drawing inspiration from various gastronomic traditions: The kitchen is equally adept at huevos and Hot Browns. A weirdly East Coast aesthetic, evidenced by a cooler stocked with cheese Danish and Dr. Brown's black-cherry soda, seems like the restaurant's organizing principle -- until a fabulously porky Cuban sandwich proves the restaurant's just as comfortable working in a Caribbean idiom.
"We want to make sure we've got everyone covered," Habif says. "Vegans, vegetarians, everybody: We want to have their comfort food." That's a motto for which my husband is deeply thankful -- every Sunday.